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The Graduate Student Education Committee seeks to raise the level of awareness of graduate education at the Medical School with the goal of contributing to the long range development of the student and ultimately, the early career researcher. In conjunction with the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Committee fosters and encourages the creation of educational opportunities and the strengthening of social networks.

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Starting the Search for an Alternative Career April 15, 2013

by Kimberly Busiek, Fifth Year Ph.D. Graduate Student, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

So when are you graduating? If you have spent more than five minutes in graduate school, you’ve probably become accustomed to being asked this question. Throughout most of your tenure, answering this question typically involves a shrug and a look of despair. However, as the end nears (it eventually will) and you have a projected graduation date in mind that doesn’t make your PI giggle, be prepared for the second most asked question: do you know what you are doing next? If you answer this question with the same shrug and look of despair, continue reading…For graduate students seeking opportunities outside of the traditional academic route (post-doc, next post-doc?, faculty position), the process of job seeking can become a bit overwhelming. What do I want to do? What am I qualified to do? Do I need a post-doc for that? What is the outlook for this job? What is the salary for that job?

Freaking out?  Don’t. Instead, start applying those project planning skills that you have honed throughout graduate school. Not sure where to start? I didn’t either. So below I am sharing a list of steps that I have taken (or plan to take) that have helped fellow graduate students start the “outside of academia” job search.

Figure out what you want to do.  The first step to identifying a career choice is becoming aware of the diverse career paths available to you after finishing your degree. It is critical to understand which career opportunities are within your reach. After all, if you don’t know what’s available, how will you know which career is the best fit for you? Reading Cynthia Robbins-Roth’s book Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower is a great place to start. Each chapter introduces a different career path and is written by a scientist who has taken the leap into a non-academic career.

Need further assistance? Take advantage of a tool offered by Science Careers. After registering for free, you can take a career assessment quiz at the my IDP (my Individual Development Plan) webpage. The quiz takes some time, but returns a list of 20 science-related careers for PhDs that is customized to match your own unique skill and interest set.

Talk to people who do what you want to do.  Once you have identified a potential career path that interests you, talk to others in the field. In other words, network. Thankfully, the graduate school has already created many opportunities to connect. The GSBS alumni association, for instance, hosts a Career Day each year which provides a perfect forum for current students and successful alumni to chat in small groups about specific career choices. Likewise, the Graduate Student Education Committee (GSEC) and the GSBS  both host career development seminars with speakers from a wide range of fields. The GSEC also maintains a list of past speakers for you to peruse. Would you prefer one-on-one time with a new contact? Check out the E-mentor program offered through the GSBS. The program’s webpage provides a list of volunteers who are willing to answer questions about their career paths via email or over coffee. Interested in entrepreneurial jobs? Check out enventure. This group fosters networking by hosting frequent coffee and happy hours as well as lectures and workshops with Houston’s brightest innovators. Also consider creating a profile on one of many social media websites such as LinkedIn. It’s free (for the basic level of access) and you can join groups that actively discuss career paths that interest you.

Get your CV/resume ready well before your first job interview.  And this means more than editing your current CV/resume and writing a cover letter. What this really involves is identifying job postings that interest you and critically evaluating your own CV. Which skills, certifications, or classes are you missing that could help you land the job? Is a post-doc required? Identify actions that you can take to improve your chances. A helpful search engine I use regularly to browse job postings is Indeed. Not only can you post your resume (optional), but you can also create job alerts that are emailed to you as soon as a new job is posted. After a few months, you’ll begin to recognize the hiring trends and salary ranges in your area of interest. The GSBS has posted additional job search engines that you can explore.

Of course the most important piece of advice is to stay proactive. Try new job search strategies and evaluate what works. If you are successfully navigating the road to a PhD, you’re already skilled at using the “test and see” approach. “Do not wait for your ship to come in—swim out to it.”  – Unknown

Kimberly Busiek

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